This spring, Vermont passed a law requiring any food that includes genetically engineered ingredients - otherwise known as "GMOs" for "genetically modified organisms" - to carry a label. Vermont is the first state to pass such a law, but it likely won't be the last. Oregon voters will decide on a similar measure in November and about 25 other states have proposed mandatory labeling legislation so far this year.
Proponents of the laws claim that the labels will lead to "informed consumers" making "better choices" about the foods they are eating. That sounds laudable. So what information will consumers actually find on the labels?
Will the labels inform you that approximately 80 percent of foods on grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered varieties of corn, soybeans and other fruits and vegetables? Despite the scariness of the term "GMO," chances are you ate one for breakfast. People have eaten trillions of meals containing GMOs since farmers first pushed the first biotech seeds into the ground back in the mid-1990s. These foods haven't caused a single ill health effect.
Will the labels point out that humans have been "genetically modifying" foods for centuries? Even something as familiar as sweet corn began as a wild grass-like plant that produced a few, tiny cob-like fruits. More than 5,000 years ago, Mesoamerican people began selecting and planting the seeds of the plants they preferred, discarding the rest. Our ancestors, without knowing anything about DNA or genes, were influencing changes in the genetic make-up of their food, making it tastier, more nutritious and easier to grow.
Today, scientists are using their understanding of genetics to make small and targeted improvements to the foods we eat. If you imagine that the genome of a plant is like a book, modern genetic engineering amounts to editing a few sentences to make it read better.
Will the labels tell you that farmers have rapidly adopted these engineered varieties because they are easier to grow and keep healthy in the field? Varieties of corn and cotton resistant to insects can be protected with fewer pesticides. Papayas and squash inoculated against nasty plant viruses don't get sick and rot on the branch.
No, the labels won't include any of these facts about GMOs. In fact, the labels won't convey any actual information at all - just an intimidating warning that the product contains GMOs. So what's their real purpose?
In an episode of Penn & Teller's aptly named TV show "Bullsh*t!," a woman gets a bunch of people to sign a petition to ban "dihydrogen monoxide." Dihydrogen monoxide, of course, is just the scientific name for "water," but for people who aren't scientifically versed, the name isn't informative. It just sounds scary.
The term "genetically modified organism" is as unfamiliar as "dihydrogen monoxide" and anti-GMO activists know that. The goal is not to inform consumers, but to frighten them away from buying something that is in reality as innocuous as water.
The activists' long-term strategy is to achieve an outright ban on GMOs. As one prominent anti-GMO leader, Dr. Joseph Mercola, said: "Personally, I believe GM foods must be banned entirely, but labeling is the most efficient way to achieve this. Since 85 percent of the public will refuse to buy foods they know to be genetically modified, this will effectively eliminate them from the market just the way it was done in Europe."
The anti-GMO fear-mongering is not based on science, but on the dogma that man should not "play God" by trying to improve nature - and that if he does, his hubris will lead ultimately to disaster. But there's no evidence of this pending disaster, so activists have resorted to fear tactics and the strong arm of the government to drive people to reject a successful technology and the foods improved with it.
What really needs a warning label is the anti-GMO activists' toxic, anti-technology stance. They pose an actual threat to people's health.
Dr. Amanda Maxham holds a PhD in astrophysics and is a research associate for the Ayn Rand Institute where she writes and speaks about science-based policy issues. Follow her on Twitter @DrMaxham.